Preservation or Barn find

Preservation, Barnfind, or Parts Car?

I very much enjoy a true “preservation” car that’s deeply original and wears the honest patina of use, love, care, and enjoyment.  Yet I’m equally disappointed at a concours, auction, or other events when I see a vehicle presented in the preservation class, category, or definition; when in reality it’s a barely running, smoking, glued together pile of dust and rust that looks like it just surfaced from the Black Lagoon.

This was never more dramatically presented to me than when I was judging an international concours d’elegance a few years ago, and there was a judgment call in the “Preservation” class between a lovely, elegant Lagonda drophead coupe, and a big Cadillac (not a V-16) but a V-8 limo as I recall. 

Lagonda Drophead Coupe
Lagonda Drophead Coupe

The Lagonda was highly patinated, yet still showed considerable vestige of its original paint.  What appeared to be the original chrome and plated surfaces were aged, weathered, and in some cases pitted, but all looked genuine. This True Brit was complete, fired easily, and ran like a Rolex. 

The Caddy had so many coats of paint on it, I’m sure it weighed an extra two hundred pounds.  The windows were completely purpled (some broken), and any driver would have to hang their head out the window to see.  

The engine begrudgingly fired but ran on only some minimal number of its cylinders.  For reasons I’m not recalling, that judging team on that day voted to give first place to the Caddy (might have been one-off coachwork or something).  I was somewhat incredulous over this call, even though I respect any judging team’s right to deliberate and make its own decisions. 

I protested to the chief judge, and then he and I and the judging team leader in question walked out to the field to revisit the two cars and the ranking.  The chief judge agreed with me, saying that the Caddy was for all intent and purpose no longer a safely functioning automobile (more of a parts car, or a candidate for full restoration, at most) and disqualified the car from the competition – rightfully awarding First-in-Class to the Lagonda, which was happily able to drive up to the awards ramp to claim its prize (something I doubt the Caddy could have accomplished).

Lancia all original beneath the dust
Lancia all original beneath the dust — detail, drive, and enjoy

The moral here is that there’s a Grand Canyon of difference between a true preservation car, a decrepit barnfind, and a parts car.  The first qualifier might be if “the vehicle is even drivable safely on the road.”  From there it comes down to the notions and definitions of “patina” and care, lack of care, abuse, and/or originality. 

Muntz Jet
Muntz Jet, past the point of patina
Jaguar E Type
E-Type, as customized by Loewy, wears his original touches and his paint – do not restore
Bugatti sculpture
Bugatti more sculpture than car at this point
Aston Martin needing restoration
Aston with non original paint and rust – will need restoration to be truly beautiful again

It amazes me that there is now a book written and published on how to create or match patina (some call it fauxtina) so watch out for clever-looking fake history, age, and wear. 

I had a similar discussion with the owner of a Shelby Cobra 289 that goes by the nickname of ‘Dirtbag.”  It’s an amazing thing to see; in fact, I’ve driven it.  The chrome is rusty, the interior a bit tired, but the car is complete and generally original…save for the paint. 

This little Shelby was originally red when built, but sometime back in the day it was repainted in a light yellow, which has since aged, pitted, cracked, surface-rusted, and worn through in several places.  I asked the knowledgeable owner why he won’t repaint it and he said “I won’t touch it so as to preserve all the original patina.” 

Shelby Cobra

I get the point he’s trying to make, but the reality is once the car was repainted in a non-original color, there’s no original paint, or truly authentic patina, to preserve.  If he likes the look of it and enjoys telling the story, that’s fine, it’s his car, but preservation is no longer an issue. 

A more positive defining example is a 1953 XK-120 MC FHC that I saw at auction that still wears its original, factory-applied, soft Willow Green paint, chrome, glass, and most of its original interior.  Every book, manual, service receipt, and sticker from this car’s well-lived life is present and accounted for.  Of course, the car fires on the button and would surely be a joy to own and drive.  This magnificent Jag has clearly been lovingly used, enjoyed, and maintained with a constant eye toward preserving its originality.  That’s preservation.

Jaguar XK120
Jag – just luverly

It is true that any car can be fixed or restored, although perhaps not all of them should be.  It is a fact that any/every vehicle is only original once.  A car can be restored to authentic paints, finishes, fabrics, plating – which may then again be as close as possible to original spec but not original.   

It is my contention that when a vehicle is truly deeply original and still handsome as such, it should be shared and celebrated.  And when it’s properly and sensitively restored to its original and authentic specification and “day built” materials and finishes, let’s call it restored.  And when something is a neglected, abused old car, let’s be equally clear about that too. 

What are your thoughts? Comment below as I would love to hear your views.

Show Comments (13)

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  1. I agree completely with the author. Having said that: patina isn’t only what makes a car look old and authentic. It is also what tells the story of the cars life. Every scratch of dent is evidence of what happened over the years to the car and its owners. The yellow coat of paint on the Cobra is part of the story of the life of the car. Repainting the sportscar would be erasing part of its history.

  2. Interesting. However, I know that a fella named Brandes E. has a particular soft spot in his heart fpr LaGondas.

  3. “Only original once”. Maybe. But a 100% preserved XK120 will be much looser than a good base XK120 restored as original by experts. I’d prefer to look at the former and probably to own and drive the latter.

    Agreed that preserved cars should stay that way as there are very few truly preserved cars left on the planet and these are reference vehicles. Unfortunately, that scarcity may make using them increasingly difficult as each year passes.

  4. I agree with the author and commend him for clearly delineating the difference between a well-loved and maintained unrestored original car and a rusted-out, barely running jalopy. I would however take things a step further: I wish the “original” class included ONLY cars like the green ‘53 Jag, which remains in what I’ll call presentable condition. Beyond that, I feel the car or truck in question deserves to be sympathetically restored. Sorry, but scruffy is scruffy, original or not. And I include race cars with race history in this, as they are typically far from original by the time they are finally retired. I must admit that I’m tired of seeing truly awful looking cars and self-satisfied owners crowing “its only original once.” True, but if the car looks like hell ….

  5. There is a difference between a fine original car- a car that has been cared for its entire life- and a ratty original car-one that has been neglected. We seem to have entered a phase where the rattier the better in many people’s minds, and this is unfortunate.

    One thing is for sure dust is not of historic value. I have many original cars and the first thing I do when I get them back to the shop is wash them.

  6. Patina, patina, patina, the most over used word in the classic car world. The official meaning of patina is that of the greenish film that covers copper over age. Because of Wayne Carini, people are now paying 40-50% more for dust and dents. So, if the author, who I mostly agree with, is ok with making sure of the importance of keeping the mechanicals in order. Why would he not include worn interior and the need for a proper respray? I will guarantee that all who embrace the craziness of what’s going on in the barn find world, would never be able to talk their wives into keeping that worn through leather sofa with the spring and white stuffing showing because it’s patina. Or, is that just shabby chic?

  7. I like the chief judge in the first story, absolutely correct. Just because it isn’t completely an oxide doesn’t mean it has been preserved.

  8. I agree with the points made by Matt Stone and like to add my own observations on this matter.
    With today’s new fashion of preserved against restored cars, it has become big business to restore with patina. That is “patina” artificially applied extremely skilfully. This includes ageing metal and paint surfaces as well as leather.
    This is all fine, if the object is to make a vehicle look aged for the purpose of a part in a movie shoot, I therefore refer to this type of patina as theatrical.
    I am very familiar with this type of work, and thought it was done in a very limited numbers, only to hear members at a car club meeting refer to the treatment as that of the name of the specialist I happened to know.
    At major events, cars that has been in his skilful hands are now easy to spot and have no place in a “Best Preserved Class”.
    Another type of car that also finds its way to this class are cars that are dirty rusty unrestored cars. Although no doubt an interesting and often valuable classic, it is full of dirt, grass and ice cream sticks on the carpet. Again a car like this is interesting, but it is a misunderstanding, that unrestored car should not be cleaned. “Preserved” includes keeping it clean and tidy, not the opposite.
    As a FIVA steward I had the pleasure of selecting the winner of Best Preserved Class at events such as Villa d’Este, Schloss Dyck and Schloss Bensberg and more.
    It is amazing, how certain vehicles have been rubbed in Vaseline and stored away for 100 years in a warm climate like Southern Italy., or that of an early Ferrari originally owned by a Royal Prince and Queen Consort, It was for 30 plus years stowed away in favour of a new Ferrari bearing the old Ferrari’s chassis number to save registration taxes, only to come out of hibernation many years later, now with faded paint and chrome work. Stories like these are good for judging the provenance, that is so important and indeed a privilege to experience.

  9. Welllllllll I mostly agree, but take issue with this almost fanatical concept that they have to be restored exactly to their original specifications, which in most instances was woefully inadequate.
    I currently own a 1976 Aston Martin V8 Coupe, that I’ve owned since 1982. It’s the 6th “Vintage Kipper car ( I can say that cos I are one )” I’ve owned since the late 60s. Five Aston Martins and one EType and frankly, out of the box, the performance, handling, braking and reliability of all of them, has been less than satisfactory, by a country mile. Caveat Emptor: I’m not one of the idle rich, so I mostly bought other folks used cars that lotsa times had not been maintained that well and or maintained by some butcher who had no idea what he was doing? Notwithstanding poor maintenance, they were all supposedly iconic sports cars, that at best, were a disappointing drive.
    There’s so much you can do to these old cars these days to improve them and a whole cottage industry has grown out of the need to improve the old cars, supplying aftermarket “marque” specific upgrade kits.
    On my AMV8 I’ve installed MSD ignition, the car starts easily now and idles smoothly. A modern alternator, the battery actually gets charged while I’m driving, no matter how many ancillaries I’m running. A gear reduction starter motor, the car starts now, pretty much first pull, hot or cold and mostly without the fear of an engine bay fire. A handling package, including the addition of a rear anti sway bar, the car goes round corners now, without the fear of the rear end breaking away sa much? A Fosseway Engineering front brake upgrade kit, I can actually apply the brakes now, confident that the car will stop, as opposed to stopping eventually and without the fear of fade at high speed. What’s baffling about the brakes, is that just about any American tank out of the 60s, with power assisted brakes, would stop on a dime, with the minimum amount of foot pressure on the brake pedal, so it’s not like the technology wasn’t available at the time and yet the Aston with two brake boosters, had woefully inadequate brakes?? Lastly and by far the most expensive upgrade, a full vantage spec engine upgrade. So now the car actually accelerates, idles well, handles well, stops well and is exhilarating to drive, even by modern standards. I was about to say it’s finished now, but they’re never ever really finished are they? I’m sourcing a windshield wiper motor now, cos the one the car came with takes five minutes on high speed to go from one side of the windscreen to the other and so it goes??

    Ed’s note: I do keep all the old bits, cos heaven’s forbid the next custodian wants it back to stock, well good luck driving it like that mate, that’s all I can say.

  10. Another part of this discussion is how consistently a car is patina’d or restored. When I am judging at concours, I often get cars with shiny paint, interior and chrome but whose engine compartments are completely unrestored. The owner will try to argue “well, that part of the car is original – I thought you guys liked preservation”

    I try to explain that if your car is being judged as unrestored or preservation it has to be consistent. Showing a car with a pretty exterior, but shabby mechanicals, just doesn’t cut it.

  11. I sincerely doubt whether Wayne Carini is responsible for the “Patina craze”. In my opinion, if Wayne sells a car that is so blessed then it is the buying public that is responsible for the demand. Look at the Rat- Rod category in any car gathering and you will see that the public is fascinated by the bizarre nature of these creations. I have seen examples of Rat Rods that are truly ingenious and well constructed, even with fake patina. They aren’t my cup o’ tea but who am I in the grand scheme of things. If a car is original, and running in the true sense of the word then how many other examples are there still in existence? If there is enough interest in the preservation class then I guess it warrants a trophy or two. It also follows that if there is enough interest, then maybe the price will reflect that. It’s the old supply and demand thing, nothing to get PO’d about, the judges will have their say and let the chips (or trophies) fall where they may. OK?

  12. Oh- I need to add a PS: if I had the chance and the $$$ to buy that red Jag in the lead photo I would jump on it and fire up the old power washer tout suite! Patina be damned!

  13. I’m pretty sure that red XK140 DHC was at a Bonhams Quail sale about seven or eight years ago. It was literally falling apart. More like The Lady in the Lake than anything else. It reminds me of a friend who took a ’40 Ford Coupe to get it dipped about 30 years ago. It had been found in a gulley in Eastern Washington, so it didn’t seem THAT bad. He took it to place in Spokane. They dunked it in the tank and went to get a burger. When they came back, it was literally like lace. Fixing that XK140 would be like trying to put a skeleton into a boneless chicken.